Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange

Mark S. Tucker

Anyone who’s followed my work for a while knows I’m not terribly thrilled with religion but am quite taken with the Christ mythos, which stands as the most seminally anarchic storyline in the entire history of all Western ethics and thought. Jesus’ existence is highly dubious, but let’s say he did walk the Earth two millennia ago, okay?

That being the case, He was undeniably a socialist, a Marxist (though, um, Karl had 1,818 years to go before he followed the Christos into this vale of tears, so perhaps my malaprop pushes things a might), a Communist, anarchist, anything and everything Republicans and conservatives aren’t. In fact, He was a hippie and radical and would today be hounded and re-crucified by those despoiling His name, the Christians, at least insofar as concerns the 99% inside and outside my long-since abandoned Catholic “faith”, as well as those I’ve read about, listened to, etc. Christians, almost to a one, are people who haven’t a clue about Jesus’ thought, teachings, and actions. Regardless, I’m forever interested in those who invoke the uber-progressive ways—like, say, the Berrigan Bros.—of the assassinated avatar-teacher. Only those reflecting a savaging of status quo everywhere in order to get to the Heaven Jesus said was at hand (but only if we make it, y’all) command my respect. Such people are damned few and much too far between.

In music, more than several have indeed shed the lunacies of conformity and obeisance—and if sin held any hope of philosophical justification, it would have to stand up those two sicknesses among the foremost in the Xian’s infinitely splintered canons—and crafted a catalogue of very cool Jesus songs and LPs (Jesus is Just Alright, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc.), even to the point of liturgical oddments of interest like the Electric Prunes’ Mass in F Minor, as just one example. Then there are those who really tore the barriers asunder, as with the Charles Gayle 1994 CD reviewed recently (here), Gayle a very very very progressive Christian. With those few highly gratifying examples in mind, we now turn to the Will Scruggs Jazz Orchestra’s Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey, and it’s fare thankfully infinitely far from the abnegative, masochistic, conservative repertoire so dominating the New Mercantile Xian Holy Horizon. Based in Biblical passages, the completely instrumental Song of Simeon is a semi-classically oriented jazz cycle of intellectually engaging fare.

According to that #1 best-selling Western science-fiction novel, the Bible, Simeon was the founder of the ‘Israelite tribe of Simeon’, but apparently that’s really just an eponymous metaphor, a postdiction, an after the fact reconciliation of fancy with so-called fact. As usual, the noted event is ripe with the Bible’s plethora of avidly pursued rapes (here particularly of Dinah), violence (Simeon at 14 was murdering people right, left, and center—the guy must’ve been a Hercules), hypocrisy (the raison d’etre of the Bible itself), loonie thundering superheroes in the sky (alternatingly called ‘Yahweh’, ‘G-d’, ‘God’, ‘Allah’, etc.), and so on. I mean, what part of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, isn’t thusly constructed?. But all that is somehow avoided by Rev. C. Perry Scruggs in his two-page homily to the ancient soap opera and this CD. Exposing truth would be indecorous.

Nonetheless, apparently Simeon—favored somehow, as all rapists, killers, mass marriageurs, harem holders, and general criminals seem to be in the Bible—was some kind of artist as well and wrote a song commemorating Jesus’ advent as “A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:22-35). This serves as narrative prompt for the entire sonic adventure. Don’t ask me how all that back-scatter weaves together for anything, I haven’t a clue, but, hell, it perfectly embodies the rambling fantasist nature of all religion, doesn’t it? It does, so I say let sleeping dogs snore. And, hey, since zealots get to argue their point of view on one end of the printed and aural word, I get to attack it on the other. I’m doing so. Things work out.

My favorite cut on Simeon is Go Down, Moses and for the perversest of reasons: it remains largely fidelitous to the trad standard’s thematics while trotting out saucy ‘n sassy variations as a Harlem nocturne. Yep, that’s right, a Harlem nocturne. Um, you DO know Jesus wasn’t white, don’t you? As a member of the ‘true’ Jews, he was a Mediterranean Sephard and, if I’ve been informed correctly, would have to have been at least swarthy, perhaps even, as some aver, black, a condition I just love and dearly hope was so (were He not fictional, that is—can’t forget that!). I don’t know who bleached the poor guy for Western consumption but suspect it was the converso Askenazi hordes emigrating from disintegrating Khazaria to Europe and elsewhere.

Whoa! Wait a minute, I’m supposed to at some point be critiquing art, aren’t I?, not repeatedly playing Bizarro negativist to ‘received wisdom’ in comic book phantasmagorias. Sorry ’bout that! I’ll chasten myself somewhat (but don’t bet the mortgage on it).

The entirety of Simeon is in fact a threaded narrative deftly woven by saxist Will Scruggs, whom I have to presume is the chartsman and arranger for this front sextet of highly talented players buttressed by a backing octet, some of whom are in both configurations. And I indeed so presume because, as is getting too prevalent lately, the liner notes and attributions for the release are dottily attended, more than once absenting such info (even when I went to the CD-recommended website, I got “Sorry! I couldn’t find that page”). Every single cut, though, is taken from songs ranging from circa A.D. 800 up to the near-present and marvelously embroidered, expanded, and varied, always starting in traditional quotations, reverential and apposite, before leaping off into the wild blue yonder, frequently dramatically so, as in the second movement of the opening cut, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, third section re-establishing the melody and playing around with it before getting into the sort of improv that marvelously infests the bulk of the disc. Trust me, spiritual quibbles aside, you need hear no more than this one track to be sold on the CD. It’s complicated, convoluted, informed by myriad influences, and heroically manifested. The base tome may be a stodgily staid conservative presence, but the Scruggs collective most definitely isn’t.

Though the chosen-from-history selections are indeed separated by wide gulfs of time, Scruggs, as said, has woven them into a tightly bound book of chapters unfolding with compelling pools of vigor and reflection. And, man, do they swing! Not like Goodman but more similar to Kenton, a multi-course meal for the brain rather than methamphetamine for the dance-floor derriere. You will, however, swing and be-bop, have no fear, but just not in the non-stop fashion commonly associated with the style. This ain’t no Woody Herman dinner party. I have no doubt whatsoever that Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey will prove to be the most intelligent Christmas CD printed this year…and probably next year…and the year after as well. Already possessing quite a few interesting holiday slabs—jazz, rock, novelty, classical—I have to cite this one as the oasis I myself will be repairing to when I want cerebral refuge from the maddening Monkey Planet and its pedestrian aestheto-spiritual sonic tonics during an orgiastic consumption bacchanal invented by Wall Street and merchandised by the pound; that is to say: Christmas. Hmmmm…maybe I’m coming across as too much of a Scrooge!

Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange – FAME Review: Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship – Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey